The Trump administration unsealed sweeping indictments against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and members of his inner circle on narcoterrorism charges Thursday, a dramatic escalation in the U.S. campaign to force the authoritarian socialist from power.
Attorney General William P. Barr announced the indictments of Maduro and other current and former Venezuelan officials on charges including money laundering, drug trafficking and narcoterrorism. Barr and other U.S. officials alleged a detailed conspiracy headed by Maduro that worked with Colombian guerrillas to transform Venezuela into a transshipment point for moving massive amounts of cocaine to the United States.
The action, rumored for years, comes as the U.S.-backed opposition movement to oust Maduro has struggled to maintain momentum. The coronavirus has effectively halted the opposition rallies that have been a signature of the movement.
On Thursday, Barr accused Maduro of “deploying cocaine as a weapon” to undermine the United States.
“Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and well-being of our nation,” Barr said during a news conference in Washington.
The charges against Maduro, brought in indictments in New York and Florida, carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 50 years in prison and a maximum of life. The U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, Geoff Berman, seemed to concede that U.S. authorities could not arrest Maduro in Venezuela, but noted that the leader might travel outside his country.
The charges, described as “a decade” in the making, recalled the U.S. indictment of Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega in 1988. In that case, President George H.W. Bush eventually ordered U.S. forces to invade and capture Noriega. But Venezuela’s far better-equipped military and Russian support for Maduro would complicate any attempt by the U.S. to take him into custody the same way.
The Trump administration broke diplomatic relations with Maduro last year and recognized National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Barr said officials expect to arrest Maduro, but declined to say whether the administration would entertain a military option, as it did in Panama.
“We’re going to explore all options for getting custody,” Barr said. “Hopefully, the Venezuelan people will see what’s going on and will eventually regain control of their country.”
Also charged were the head of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly, a former director of military intelligence, a former high-ranking general, the defense minister and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Some of the indicted officials — notably Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López and Chief Justice Maikel Moreno — were involved in plotting a military uprising against Maduro last spring, but failed to live up to secret pledges to move against the president. The charges suggest the Justice Department was pursuing their alleged links to narcotrafficking even as U.S. officials endorsed and encouraged the efforts of the Venezuelan opposition to solicit their participation in that plot.
The indictments are a sharp escalation in tactics that officials have gradually ramped up against Maduro since President Trump entered the White House. A campaign that started with targeted sanctions on individual Venezuelan officials broadened to measures that have locked the government out of the U.S. financial system. A U.S. oil embargo imposed last year has denied Caracas its single largest source of hard currency.
Maduro rejected the U.S. charges Thursday.
“There’s a conspiracy from the United States and Colombia and they’ve given the order of filling Venezuela with violence,” he said on Twitter. “As head of state I’m obliged to defend peace and stability for all the motherland, under any circumstances.”
Maduro is scrambling to cope with an outbreak of the coronavirus as Venezuela’s broken hospitals reel from chronic shortages of medicines, dilapidated equipment and unsanitary conditions. Barr suggested the pandemic had delayed Thursday’s announcement, but he said the time was right because Venezuela’s “people are suffering.”
“They need an effective government that cares about the people,” Barr said. “We think that the best way to support the Venezuelan people during this period is to do all we can to rid the country of this corrupt cabal.”
In a January interview with The Washington Post, Maduro scoffed at allegations that his government had established agreements with Colombian guerrillas engaged in narcotrafficking and kidnapping on the Venezuelan-Colombian border.
“It makes me laugh,” he said.
Prosecutors allege that Maduro and other Venezuelan officials have operated the Cartel do los Soles, or Cartel of the Suns, since at least 1999, corrupting Venezuela’s government institutions so they could flood the U.S. with hundreds of tons of cocaine. They say the cartel worked with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to ship the drug by air and sea through the Caribbean and Central America to the United States. (The FARC, a Marxist guerrilla movement that engaged in a decades-long war against the Colombian government, officially disbanded with the Colombian peace accord of 2016, but more than 2,500 dissident members remain active.)
Prosecutors allege that Maduro led the operation, negotiating shipment quantities, directing the cartel to provide military-grade weapons to the FARC and coordinating with officials in other countries to facilitate the drug trafficking.
Barr said the Maduro government is “awash in corruption and criminality.”
“While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and the proceeds of their corruption,” Barr said.
U.S. authorities charged myriad Venezuelan officials in separate drug and money laundering cases in federal courts in New York, Florida and Washington.
In one case, prosecutors alleged Padrino López took bribes to allow drug traffickers to fly planes in his country’s airspace without fear of being shot down. In another, they said Moreno fixed criminal and civil court cases in exchange for kickbacks — including dismissing a fraud case against the state oil company and authorizing the sale of a $100 million General Motors plant in exchange for a cut of the proceeds.
U.S. officials and Venezuelan opposition leaders have sought dialogue with members of Maduro’s inner circle in an attempt to strip away or at least weaken his internal support. By targeting several members of his inner circle, the administration could push them to close ranks around Maduro, complicating efforts to isolate him.
The indictments appear to conflict with long-standing administration policy toward Maduro. For most of the last year, administration officials repeatedly emphasized their desire for Maduro to leave Venezuela for exile, where they pledged not to pursue him. “This is not about revenge,” one senior official said last year. “We would be happy to pay the airfare.”
By reducing the likelihood of a negotiated settlement, they could be putting Maduro in a position where he has little left to lose — and could increase pressure on Guaidó, who has enjoyed a level of protection under U.S. patronage.
In what appeared to be a retaliatory move, Maduro’s attorney general on Thursday announced an investigation into Guaidó and others for allegedly plotting a “coup.”
U.S. officials who deal with Venezuela policy say that the charges announced Thursday had more to do with Justice Department investigations — and the timing of grand juries weighing the matter in New York and Florida — than any change of position within the administration.
“This was not a policy move,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Venezuela’s opposition embraced the charges. Iván Simonovis, Guaidó’s security commissioner, called the $15 million reward for Maduro’s capture and conviction, and $10 million for others, powerful incentive for other government officials to turn against them.
“There is a price for each one of them,” he told The Post. “You never know what could happen with that.”
Trump administration officials have given strong support to Guaidó, notably in his military uprising last April 30. That effort quickly petered out, and is increasingly being viewed as Venezuela’s Bay of Pigs — a lost opportunity to oust Maduro that might not come again.
One of the Venezuelans charged, retired Gen. Cliver Alcalá Cordones, posted video clips on Twitter proclaiming his innocence. He said he was living in Barranquilla, Colombia, with the full knowledge of the Colombian government, and had been cooperating for some time with both Guaidó and American officials.
“I'm at my home,” he said. “I'm not running.”
Last year, Maduro’s former spy chief, Gen. Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, told The Washington Post that he had provided details on locations and activities of Colombian drug cartels and criminal gangs operating on Venezuelan soil directly to Maduro, but Maduro declined to act.
“I gave him a folder with this and told him, ‘Look, this is the situation with the guerrillas,’” said Figuera, who turned against Maduro last year and is now in the United States.
“They never took action,” he said. “You could say that Maduro is a friend of the guerrillas.”
Analysts see differences between going after Maduro now and Noriega in the 1980s.
Maduro maintains a firmer grip on the Venezuelan military than Noriega had, and its officers have been less influenced by contact and cooperation with the U.S. military than were Panama’s. Venezuela’s military is better equipped with more sophisticated Russian weaponry.
Maduro’s government also has more international support. The Russians and Cubans, and to a lesser extent, the Chinese, have stood behind him, and Moscow has turned the shipment of Venezuelan oil to circumvent U.S. sanctions into a cash cow.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that Maduro, although broadly unpopular, is still seen by some in Venezuela as the anointed successor of Hugo Chávez, the father of the socialist state, who died of cancer in 2013. Maduro’s inner circle maintains control of the Venezuelan socialist movement, known as Chavismo, a still-formidable apparatus.
“You can lob a cruise missile and take him out, but you don’t take out Chavismo,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society. “You don’t really take out the regime unless the military lays down its weapons and says we’re going to support the Americans. I don’t see that happening.”
Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas contributed to this report.